May 2012: In Conversation with Gregory Sholette
Gregory Sholette with Brett Bloom's 11 Million Person Tower, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Queens Museum of Art.
For his project Fifteen Islands for Robert Moses (currently on view at the Queens Museum of Art), Gregory Sholette asked 15 artists, known for their work in social activism, to come up with an idea for an island that could be added to the panorama of New York City installed at the Queens Museum. The panorama is the largest scale model of a city in the world. It includes every building that exists in the five boroughs. It was commissioned by Robert Moses for the 1964 World’s Fair and took over 100 artists 3 years to build.
Fifteen Islands for Robert Moses includes projects by Hana Shams Ahmed, Brett Bloom, Larry Bogad, Marc Fischer, Aaron Gach/Center for Tactical Magic, Libertad Guerra, Dara Greenwald, Marisa Jahn, Karl Lorac/Themm!, Ann Messner, Ted Purves, Rasha Salti, Dread Scott and Jenny Polak, Jeffrey Skoller, and Nato Thompson. Models of these islands were built by Gregory Sholette and installed in the panorama. On view through May 20, 2012.
Gregory Sholette was a member of Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D: 1980-1988), and REPOhistory (1989-2000), both artist groups that were once active in organizing politically-inspired shows in New York. He is the author of Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (Pluto Press, 2011), a book that explores the role of the 99% of artists who do not live off sales of their work. He is also a member of The Institute for Wishful Thinking, an artist group started by Greg and Maureen Connor in 2008 with a group of then MFA students,
Patty Harris: Given Robert Moses’ legacy, his domineering, overarching plan for developing New York City and the public resistance to it, why is this show called 15 Islands for Robert Moses?
Gregory Sholette: I wanted to make a reference to the fact that Moses was the one who commissioned the panorama for the 1964 World’s Fair. I wanted to also, in a roundabout way, pay homage to the anonymous model-makers who constructed the original panorama. Thus the title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Fifteen Islands for Robert Moses.
Harris: Why islands?
Sholette: I had a very perverse reason for this. I wanted to ask people who specifically were engaged with, or had written about, social-practice art to then come up with an island because, in my mind an island, or isolated landmass, is a direct metaphor for detachment and exactly the opposite of social engagement. There’s some perversity in that.
Harris: Along those same lines, if the fabric of city life is interdependent and social, what is the correlation between individual desires and how they shape the public experience of the city?
Sholette: They always do shape the fabric of the city. But desire doesn’t necessarily come from individuals; it’s often collectively produced. Part of it is a feedback mechanism between the city as a complex machine that generates pressure on the collective to have certain fantasies and materializations of the urban evironment. It’s also a place where that feedback mechanism can break down and create spaces for interesting, alternative zones of fantasy and possibility. I think one of the things that’s happened since I’ve been in New York since 1977 is that those little gaps and spots and undefined urban places have really closed down and sealed up thanks to the forces of gentrification, deregulation, privatization, and of course constant surveillance. They’ve been welded shut. In going back to the Fifteen Islands project, you might say I was trying to pry open that space and insert a different possible reading of the landscape of the city.
Ted Purves, Sillian Archipelago, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Queens Museum of Art.
Harris: Do you think that the closure of those kinds of spaces of alternative possibilities has had an adverse effect on the social life of the city?
Sholette: I guess it would depend on where you were coming from. If you’re a real estate agent, banker, insurance person, I would say it has not had a negative effect. It’s actually had a beneficial effect to allow for the stabilization of all kinds of things. Crime has been reduced, etc. But it also means everything is much more regular and more typically middle-class. People raise their children here, they can go to school here, they jog in Central Park without worrying about tripping over junkies. All of those details have been beneficial to what we sometimes call FIRE - Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate industries, who dominate the politics of the city. If however you’re coming from a different perspective such as that of an artist, a musician, or perhaps an educator who wants to make people think critically, or are a person who lives in a part of the city that’s being gentrified, or someone who does community work for any number of constituencies at the small end of the political spectrum, those people looking at that situation might say no. The social life of the city is no longer as open to the idea of the commons. It’s actually been quite detrimental having these zones of possibility, fantasy, and even let’s call it resistance, closed down and sealed up.
Harris: There seems to be an element of utopia in this project. Do you think that individual ideas of utopia could combine to create a greater social experience for everyone?
Sholette: I’d like to think that that’s possible. I think that kind of speaks to what has been going on since the beginning of Arab Spring. As far back as the Green Revolution in Iran and then more recently in Tahrir Square in Egypt, and in Tunisia, and the resistance to Scott in Wisconsin, and up to Occupy Wall Street, I think that all of these have some of what you’re talking about. They tend to be individuated movements towards a kind of different future or possibility or utopian moment rather than being merged into one big idea of utopia. They retain individuality but are combined spatially rather than ideologically. I say this because it contrasts with early 20th Century Modernist ideas of utopian thinking in which you had to subscribe to a regime that called itself utopia. If you deviated too much, you really weren’t part of it. Here the deviation seems to be part of the moment. I think that’s quite interesting and quite unique. And perhaps some of that "diversity within unity" is also expressed by my project Fifteen Islands.
Harris: Do you think there is a fascination with a world in miniature in itself?
Sholette: It was Claude Leví-Strauss, the anthropologost, who said that he believed that miniaturization was at the very heart of all aesthetics. He made the point that when you look at a monument, you think at first, ‘Oh, it’s huge.’ Actually, in a sense, it is a kind of miniature version of some far grander thing like a boulder or entire mountain. I think it’s an interesting take.
Harris: How is this project related to your recent book, Dark Matter?
Sholette: It’s an interesting question. It does actually relate in several ways. The most important way for me is the kind of artistic practice that I think it represents is fairly off the radar screen of the mainstream artworld. It’s not really considered art. We’re now talking about the many unknown and invisible people who produce things like the panorama which is a professionally fabricated miniature model, perhaps the largest in the world, but it is nevertheless much closer to the kind of amateur diorama builder or scale-train enthusiast than it is to the world of painting and sculpture. I got my start after art school making a living in a model-making shop. I also ran a model-making shop for awhile in the Gowanus area. So the project draws on that set of skills but also my experience of working in an "artistic" mode located outside the parameters of "fine art." More importantly there is also an enormous number of people in the world who do this kind of work purely for the love of creating miniature worlds. Sometimes the work they do is so profoundly skilled and interesting that it would stand up very well next to most of the things that you see in contemporary art galleries. That pretty much illustrates a part of my thesis which states that there is an enormous amount of creativity that takes place that the art world simply does not and cannot acknowledge. To acknowledge it would undermine its own privileged concept of artistic "value." So you might say the model-making is an homage to this dark matter amateur productivity.
Rasha Salti, Palestine as Metaphor, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Queens Museum of Art.
Harris: How is this project related to your work with The Institute for Wishful Thinking?
Sholette: Sure there is some relationship in so far as The Institute for Wishful Thinking asks people "What would you like?", and "Can we fulfill your desires?" But Fifteen Islands really relates back more specifically to a project I did in 2005, or a little earlier, called I Am Not My Office. At the time there was an ad campaign by Microsoft saying, "I am my office," with very hip looking young people. This was the catch line. The idea being that with Microsoft technology you can become a virtual office. I borrowed it and added ‘not.’ I asked a series of questions to a group of people some of whom were artists, others art historians, and some office workers with no art world connection. My question was this: If you could have any sort of superpower or prosthetic extension, that would allow you to fantasize while you’re at work about the things you really want to do, what would it be? Then I selected some of the answers and I fabricated models, kind of like action figures, and then exhibited this as an installation for the Smart Museum in Chicago. That’s really the origin of the concept behind Fifteen Islands for Robert Moses.
Harris: What do you think Robert Moses would think of your project?
Sholette: Not knowing his personality, I think he would ironically find it amusing. I’m guessing. Maybe a couple of pieces would hopefully rub him the wrong way politically. For example he might object to the "model" of an imaginary independent Palestine as envisioned by Rasha Salti in the form of speeding subway cars -- both utopian and lonely at the same time -- or Larry Bogad's idea of Dunkin' Island where bankers are publicly "waterboarded." Because the works range from very humorous, frivolous and playful to more serious. Only if the islands were seriously considered for construction would he then probably find it quite impossible and upsetting. But of course, his master plan of New York City was once just a fantasy as well, so who knows?
Larry Bogad, Dunkin' Island, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Queens Museum of Art.
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Patty Harris lives and works in Brookyn, New York.
She has been showing in New York since the mid 80s, as well as internationally. Recent shows include Exit Art and PS122. She has written for various downtown publications.